A few weeks ago, a Time Magazine readers poll named the women of Iran Heroes of the Year for leading the mass protests these past three months. Irani women are protesting the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini. Last September, Amini died in the custody of the country's morality police. The police detained her for not wearing a headscarf. Situations like this are from unusual and highlight the state of women in the world:
Somewhere else in the world there is a brother who murdered his 16-year-old sister after he discovered she had been raped—by a family member. Somewhere else, a 17-year-old ran over his 18-year-old, handicapped pregnant sister with his pickup truck, ignoring her pleas for mercy. Someplace in Egypt, there is a father who displayed his dead daughter’s severed head before his neighbors and proudly announced, “at last my honor has been restored.”
In cultures where women are seen as little more than property, or less valuable than men, any hint of sexual misconduct, a refusal to accept an arranged marriage, a rape, or seeking a divorce, a desire to learn or to work or just take a walk alone outside the home can be seen as an affront to male honor and leaves a woman vulnerable to violence by her male relatives. The UN estimates the number of “Honor Killings,” the killings of women who allegedly break some moral code, at least about 5000 a year.
These are disturbing stories, they are not the kind of stories we want to hear a week before Christmas. But we have had an unusual Advent, have we not, with tales of judgment day and two weeks of the stark message of repentance from John the Baptizer, and here now we learn of Joseph’s plans to divorce Mary. The stories of these past four weeks have been fraught with tension. We live in tense times, harsh times, and Advent has plunged us further into these tough situations. Yet these stories, the stories of the Masha Aminis of the world, are what we need to hear to get at the horror and the scandal when Matthew writes, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his other Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
This crisis is not just about how Joseph felt toward Mary. It is a crisis rooted in the kind of community Joseph and Mary lived, traditional communities that exist in our world today. The law was clear. A woman caught in adultery was to be stoned to death.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. He decided he could not go on with the marriage. However, he felt a public handling of the situation would be distasteful. He resolved to divorce Mary in secret. This way, he could preserve his family’s honor. He would avoid a public airing of the scandal. But it would not resolve the matter for Mary. In fact, it put Mary in even more jeopardy. How would her father or uncles respond, or how would her brothers react when they learned of the divorce? When they learned of her pregnancy? Mary’s future looked bleak indeed.
This leads us to ask, what kind of God would choose to flaunt human, social convention in such a manner? What kind of God would operate outside the very law regulating marriage and the procreation of children established in God’s law in the scriptures? What kind of God would put a young vulnerable woman at such a risk? What kind of God would cause a righteous man to face such a no-win situation?
Stunning, isn’t it? God chose an unmarried woman over a respectable matron. God chose the manger over a warm palace. God chose angels over theologians and shepherds over priests. God pushed a respectable man to take a leap into the unknown. God chose the place where Joseph’s religious training and respectability had not prepared him to go. At that hard, hard place, where life no longer made sense and honor was lost, God’s love appeared and spoke to Joseph, as clear as it speaks to us today.
“Joseph, Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid, Take Mary as your wife, Be the father to this baby, and name him Jesus.” And one day, this Jesus will even follow Joseph’s example. He will keep a mob of angry men from stoning a woman caught in adultery. He will restore outcasts to community; He will bring God’s light to the world. He’s going to save us from our ignorance and sin. He will teach us how to love, to love as God loves: scandalously. Unconditionally.
When Joseph awoke from this dream, that confused place of his that didn’t understand, that wanted to play it safe, was changed into a place that could accept uncertainty, risk even the perhaps the ridicule of neighbors. He would go on to save Mary’s life, then the infant Jesus’ life from a murderous King Herod, because he was present to the workings of Divine Love.
Who is this Love who promises to love us at our worst? Who speaks words of daring beyond our wildest dreams? We need to know this, in these remaining days before Christmas, because we live in a world of war and where girls still hide from their families and they still stone them. Like Joseph, we lean to solutions that are traditional, that make sense. But God asks us to lean into Love.
This is where God chooses to find us. At those places where our righteousness fails and our best is no longer good enough, where our dreams become disturbing. In a tired and cranky moment when all the gaiety of the season and light-hearted Christmas carols cannot hold back the confusion in our hearts and the pain in the world. That’s when we are called to take a great leap of faith. To say “yes” like Mary did. To obey the angel’s voice like Joseph did. To incarnate love, like Jesus did.
What confusing times are we living in. Despite the message of joy, many of us are stressed, depressed, worried. The customs of our culture encourages us to spend more than we have, to eat more than we should, to extend ourselves beyond our human strength. No wonder we are confused, broken and exhausted and we dare not admit this to one another. Yet the message of this final week of Advent is still clear: the scandalous love of God still wants us. It speaks to us, through angels, in dreams, through each other. God’s love beckons us. It invites us to risk to love deeper, to jump further in faith, and embrace God’s scandalous love however it presents itself to us. In the conundrums of life. In the stretching of our spirit to believe the impossible, to dream the unimaginable, to partake in the newness of life and in the unlikely ways it shows its presence in our lives. To buck the trends. To love the unusual. To see God’s hand working outside the box. To lean fully into that kind of love.
In these final days leading us to Christmas, lean into love, and bring love’s scandalous presence wherever the angels call you to be. Be the voice of justice, mercy and compassion. Be heros, sheros of faith, shining the light of Christ in those dark and broken places on earth where through us and make God’s scandalous love bring justice, righteousness and peace to all women and men on earth. amen